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Jordan A to Z: P is for … Petra!

Words cannot adequately describe Petra, the ancient capital of the Nabateans.  If you are unfamiliar with the Nabateans, they were an Arab tribe descended from Ishmael’s eldest son Nebaioth.  They lived in the area that would be considered modern day southern Jordan and northern Saudi Arabia.  They were merchants and artisans whose society flourished for hundreds of years using Petra as their capital and trading hub.  Eventually the Romans came on the scene, and also the z, and the Muslims.  All left their imprint on Petra before it was lost to the sands of time following a series of devastating earthquakes.

Petra was rediscovered in modern times in 1812 by Swiss Johaan Burckhardt who, after years of training, masqueraded as an Arab merchant on his way to sacrifice at Aaron’s tomb.  Along the way he discovered the ancient city of Petra.

Today Petra is Jordan’s most popular tourist destination and it is easy to see why.  It is truly breath-taking.

I should stop writing and just let the pictures do the talking.  I visited Petra 6 times this past year (with out-of-town guests) and each time I notice something new.  Here are some pics I like.  Hope you like them too.

(If a picture is worth a 1000 words – here’s to my longest blog post ever)

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Jordan A to Z: O is for … Olives!

Unfortunately, I have fallen way behind in the A to Z blogging challenge!  This being my first time, I don’t know what the official rules are … but I am taking more of a NaNoWriMo approach to it.  As long as I push through and get all 26 entries done by the end of the month then I will be satisfied.  This also means that I am going to have to make my posts a lot shorter.  So here goes.

Olives

One of the delights of Jordan is that delicious olives are readily available.  Most markets (both the open air variety and the western-style super market) have a large selection of fresh olives, not unlike a deli counter back home.  Although prices vary, and I never really bought olives by the kilo back home, my impression is that it is much cheaper to keep yourself in olives here than back in the states.  Jordan is 12th in the world for olive production … which may not sound overly impressive until you realize it is 96th in the world for GDP, 106th for population, 112th for land area and then you realize that tiny Jordan is holding  its own on Olive production!

It seems that almost everyone here who has a little bit of land has an olive tree or two.  When we moved into our new place we actually had a garden with 9 olive trees! Trees can either be pruned for cultivation or allowed to grow a bit wild for shade.  These ones were definitely left for shade and we are thinking about having them pruned back for production as you can pick your own olives and have them milled into fresh oil.  However, friends of ours who have perhaps a dozen trees picked a lot of olives this year and when they brought their pickings to the miller he laughed and out of sympathy milled them for them.  It produced a couple of liters of olive oil only.  Apparently it takes 5-7 kilos (11-15 lbs) of olives to make a liter of olive oil!  The miller usually was dealing with 100s of kilos of olives.

If your olive trees over hang into the street the poor are allowed to glean from them and this year I witnessed this a few times.  Sometimes people will knock on your door and ask if they can harvest your olives if you do not want them. Olive trees are hardy, living for hundreds (some say thousands) of years, providing sustenance and income for a family for generations.

Olives!

 

Jordan A to Z: N is for … Nana (or more accurately نعناع )

Nothing beats the smell of fresh picked Nana.  It is so delightfully refreshing and Jordanians use it in a handful of wonderful ways.  What pray tell is Nana?  First of all it is really نعناع  which when transliterated correctly looks like “na3naa3.”  For those readers not used to seeing words spelled with numbers, 3 is commonly used in the transliteration of Arabic to represent the Arabic letter 3ayn, which we do not have a formal equivalent of in the English language.  the ‘3’ is pronounced almost like the ‘a’ in ‘father’ but the sound comes from deeper in your throat with a fair amount of voicing.  And it’s a consonant rather than a vowel.  The sound is difficult for English speakers … so many default to some version of an ‘a’ sound, especially in words like Nana.

Oh, right nana! What is it?  Nothing less than the wonderfully delicious and ultimately refreshing … mint!

Anyone who has grown mint knows that it is off and running like a weed.  This is a great thing if you have uses for it … and the Jordanians have many.  Besides the ubiquitous garnish on hummus, baba gannouj and other spreads, salads and dips, mint has three uses in Jordan that I am particularly fond of.

Nana Number One – Mint Tea

شاي بنعناع

Probably more popular than water, you are never more than 50 yards away from a mint tea seller in Amman.  Whether it is from a cafe, a restaurant, a falafil cart, or simply a guy walking around with a teapot, a stack of plastic cups and a wad of mint stuffed in his belt … you can always find somewhere to get your fix.  I must confess that in my university study days I may have gotten addicted to having a hit of mint tea before facing class each day.  It’s hard to say what is most enticing . . . the caffeine, the copious amounts of sugar, or the nice fresh minty flavor.

Tea for two, Jordanian style

Nana Number Two – Mint Lemonade

ليمون بنعناع

Limon bi Nana or Mint Lemonade - a must try while in Jordan!

Ok, seriously, it may not be too much to say that you have not truly lived until you have tasted a Jordanian Mint Lemonade, or as it is called here ‘Limon bi Nana.’  It is so unique and refreshing!  Each place that serves it up has a slightly different recipe and spin.  Some add ice to make more of a slushy, others serve it as a juice.  Some places have more mint, others more sugar.  But in the end they are all roughly the same.  A very tart lemonade made with fresh squeezed lemons blended together with tons of mint and varying amounts of sugar.  I would say that most places go light on the sugar (which seems counter-cultural here in Jordan).  The result is the perfect summer drink!

Nana Number Three – Mint Flavored Hookah

A typical hookah or arghile pipe

Hookah is very popular in Jordan as it is all over the Middle East.  The name for it here is ‘arghile’ (pronounced ar-gee-la) or ‘sheesha’ (pronounced like it looks).  I think the term hookah is of Indian or perhaps Persian origin and is only just catching on here.  Usually when they refer to arghile in English, Arabs will call it ‘hubbly-bubbly’ which I had never heard until arriving in Jordan, so I wonder if it is a Britishism.

For those unfamiliar with the hookah – it is a water pipe that has been used for centuries by the Arabs for smoking tobacco.  In the US, the drug culture of the 1960s and 70s has forever tainted the image of a hookah as primarily being used to smoke illicit drugs.  Such is not the case here in the Middle East.  It’s just tobacco!  The term ‘sheesha’ doesn’t help as many American English speakers will automatically associate it with marijuana … but that is certainly not the case!

Arghila tobacco is unique in that it is very moist.  It is blended with molasses and different kinds of flavorings.  Jordanians prefer fruity flavors, so options tend to be: apple, double apple, cherry, melon, fruit cocktail, grape, etc.  Another popular vein is mint flavors.  There is just plain mint, but they also mix it with other flavors particularly lemon or grape.

Mint-flavored arghile tobacco

So it is entirely possible on a Thursday night outing in Amman to sit at a cafe enjoying a nice cool mint lemonade with a hookah filled with mint tobacco and chase it all down with some mint tea.  Perhaps a bit much all in one sitting … but all three are delicious reminders of life here in Jordan.

Jordan A to Z: M is for … Mansaf or Msakhan!

MMMmmmmmm . . . It is only fitting that ‘M’ is for two of the most delicious meals offered in Jordan!  While it is true that there are many delicious Arabic dishes that start with the letter M (check out Jim’s delicious post on Maqluube), these two are often at the top of the list as favorites.

Mansaf, the Jordanian national dish

A platter of mansaf.

Anyone who has traveled to Jordan, or even has read about traveling to Jordan has probably heard of Mansaf.  A guidbeook section on Jordanian cuisine cannot be complete without mentioning this tasty meal.  Even government websites extol the virtues of Mansaf.  So (for the uninformed), what is Mansaf? It is lamb  cooked till falling off the bone perfection, served over a bed of rice, topped with warm jameed (yoghurt sauce), sprinkled with pine nuts and/or almonds, and often accompanied by large pieces of shraak (Bedouin style flat bread).

An individual portion of mansaf.

At a restaurant, or I suppose in someone’s house, you might be served an individual serving on an individual plate.  However, mansaf is traditionally served on a huge round serving dish, and is consumed as a communal meal straight from the platter.  Traditionally, the platter is set on the floor and 10 or so people would sit around it and eat everything with their hands.  This takes some getting used to for the uninitiated or cutlery-dependent, but really is not so bad once you get the hang of it.  (The trick is rolling the rice into a ball around a core piece of chicken.  Also, remember this has to be done only with the right hand as the left is considered unclean.)

Of course some Jordanians will offer you a plate and spoon or fork if you are visiting. But not all.  And if you are able to try your best at eating with your hands without batting an eye … your status definitely goes up in the sight of your host.  Once when I visited a bedouin village, I ate mansaf with my hands without hesitation.    Later when I was walking around meeting people in the village my host told everyone, “he eats like us …. with his hands!”

Eating mansaf Bedouin-style!

You say Musakhan, I say Msakhan

A typical platter of Msakhan.

Another delicious dish starts with ‘m’ but after that there everyone seems to disagree how to spell the word in English.  There are a handful of variants … but they all spell one thing in my  book … delicious!  Now I must say from the outset that msakhan, although very popular in Jordan, is actually of Palestinian origin.  But seeing as how 40-60% of the population are Palestinian or of Palestinian background, msakhan  remains a crowd pleaser here in Jordan.

A smaller plate of Msakhan to be shared with 2-3 people.

And really, what’s not to like?  Msakhan consists of carmelized onions, warm bread, and chicken cooked to perfection.  First a ton of onions are cooked in olive oil with a citrusy but purple spice known as sumac.  Then a layer of flatbread is arranged on a platter.  Some of the onion mixture is ladled over the bread, then the chicken is placed down, and often more onion mix and more bread.  The whole thing is cooked in an oven and the result is … soooo very good!

The chicken and the bread are often both crispy on the outside and moist and delicious on the inside.  The onion mixture bakes onto the bread creating a on-of -a-kind crust that is really hard to stop eating.  As with Mansaf pine nuts or almonds are usually sprinkled over the finished product.  It too is often served on a large communal platter and of the two dishes is by far the easier to eat sans utensils.

An award-winning platter of Msakhan in Palestine in 2010.

In Conclusion

Both meals are quite heavy and not for the faint of heart.  You will probably not be doing your cholesterol any favors, especially with msakhan.  But if you have an opportunity to experience either one … you must! Beyond tasting great,  both of these dishes hold a special place in Jordanian and Palestinian culture. One is a source of national pride and hearkens back to the country’s Bedouin roots.  The other is like Middle Eastern soul food that reminds many of grandma’s kitchen and table.

So the real question is … which do you prefer?  Answer the poll below and let us know!